Former tennis star Andre Agassi deserves enormous credit for recognizing that nothing is more important than ensuring every child gets the kind of quality education that is their best chance for success in a rapidly changing world. I know, there are high school dropouts who make it to the top. But all the ones I know were blessed with gifts that enabled them to do what the other 99 percent of high school dropouts don't.
Agassi has sponsored a charter school in Las Vegas that, as he puts it, has 650 students and 1,500 on the wait list. That is true of many of the quality charter schools, particularly those located in areas where the rest of the schools are by any measure failing.
Based on his experience with that one school, Agassi has teamed with bankers and investors to embark on a project aimed at building 75 schools over the next three or four years while making money for the investors, including Citigroup Inc. and Intel Corp.
"It's a novel business model," one of the investors said. Indeed. Novel and, from my perspective as a taxpayer and a strong supporter of charter schools (contributions, board membership and the like for the past decade), deeply troubling.
First of all, you aren't going to fix education by building 75 for-profit charter schools over four years. If you're serious about real education reform, the name of the game is transforming public schools, not allowing a few extra children the advantages of charter schools. I understand that every kid we help matters. But we can't build enough charter schools to deal with the problems millions of kids are facing.
The argument for charter schools has never been that they are the answer to the failings of public education. They were intended to serve as laboratories and models, figuring out what works and why, experimenting with new systems of decentralized control and school autonomy so that public schools could learn from the experience. That is why some of us who have been involved in charter work for years have formed a new organization (nonprofit, of course) called "Future Is Now Schools" (FIN Schools), led by nationally known reformer Steve Barr. The goal is to transform failing public schools in major cities by forming local partnerships.
Second, efforts to build national networks of for-profit schools haven't worked nearly as well as efforts to build fast-food chains. With all due respect to former tennis stars and investment bankers, running schools takes talented principals, dedicated teachers, inspiration, charisma, administrative experience, an understanding of the special issues involved in educating children who face crime while trying to get to and from school and who live with parents (if two) who do not support them, and the ability to deal with the effects of poverty and violence on a daily basis.
When Green Dot Public Schools, the nonprofit organization whose board I have served on for the past 10 years, took over the worst high school in Los Angeles, our biggest unanticipated budget overages the first year were the enormous costs of security and special education. Dedicated teachers and administrators worked 24/7 to address the huge problems we faced.
Public education isn't failing because it's easy; it's failing because it's hard. And by the way, we're not trying to make a dime. It has taken generous support from major foundations to allow us to just break even.
So how are Agassi and his partners going to make money taking on such challenges? For one thing, they say they will avoid states that (like California) don't provide enough money per pupil for them to make money. Thanks. Go where you're needed least.
But beyond that, as a taxpayer whose children are both in college or headed there, I am more than willing to pay what it takes in taxes and contribute what I can charitably to support quality public education. What I am not willing to do is see my tax dollars, or anyone else's, going not to the classroom, not to efforts to reform public education for everyone, not to efforts to develop a "new unionism" that will allow teachers unions to be partners in reform, but instead to provide an excellent return to investors.
To his great credit, former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan, one of the investors, made clear that anything he personally earned in the venture would be plowed back into charity. By my research, he's the only one who said that.
I have long understood that there are many reasons why I am not rich. One of them, surely, is that for me, the only return that matters is measured by the achievement of the kids, by the smiles on graduation day when parents who graduated sixth grade, if that, watch their children walk on stage to receive a diploma that is the first step toward college and a new life for themselves and their families. That's the return I want on my investment, and it's worth more than money.